By golly, I do love a cheese board. The holidays offer ample opportunities to amp up your cheese-board game, so to speak, and do something beyond the usual cheese ball (though I will happily help to demolish a cheese ball, especially if it’s coated in almonds).
My friend Angela, who knows me well, gave me a little framed artwork depicting an array of cheeses, and it has pride of place atop my fridge. “For the love of CHEESE,” it proclaims and, yes, “cheese” is appropriately in all capital letters. The picture depicts Camembert, Swiss, Parmesan, Jarlsberg, Gouda, Gorgonzola, pepper Jack, Muenster and Edam. But if I had my way, this all-star list of cheeses would also include feta.
This salty Greek cheese, traditionally made from sheep’s milk, is a real workhorse, good for everything from crumbling in salads to tossing in pasta to baking in the oven with a pan of cherry tomatoes until it’s soft inside and golden on top. One thing I have not done with feta is fry it, although I’ve recently been taken with fried feta recipes running rampant on the internet. If there was ever a right time to fry feta, it’s now. (I could say that just as vehemently in mid-June.)
I thought this might serve as inspiration for your Christmas or New Year’s parties. It seems impressive — fried cheese, a Christmas miracle! But it’s actually quite easy, as this firm cheese manages to keep its shape while actually becoming gorgeously melty. The recipe is simple. Take an 8-ounce block of feta (I used cow’s milk feta) and cut it in half horizontally, so it’s just as wide but half as high, which will enable it to melt better. Then take each half and dip it in beaten egg. Coat each egg-drenched half in panko breadcrumbs. (These crispy Japanese breadcrumbs are found in most grocery stores.) Then fry it in olive oil for no more than two minutes each side. Be careful while handling the feta, as it is apt to crumble. My first attempt broke apart as I lifted it into the pan, but my second worked just fine. If I can do it, you can, too. Serve it while it’s still warm, surrounded by crackers, crudites, nuts, pita chips or toast points, or fresh fruit and jam.
I mentioned jam and hoo-ee, have I got a festive jam that pairs lusciously with fried feta. It’s inspired by the cranberry sauce that my friend Shoshana makes every year for Thanksgiving. Her sauce is perfectly balanced between sweet and tart and after the big meal we all scramble to take home leftover sauce, because it is the best thing ever on a turkey sandwich.
I texted Shoshana to ask about her recipe but since I’m so confoundedly impatient I ploughed ahead without her response. I knew she added water, but I thought, “Why not replace water with wine? That’s biblical.” Then I thought, “I like spices. How about a whole bunch of spices?” I further reasoned that if cranberries are so pretty, why not add another red thing, like cherry tomatoes? Finally, I thought, “I love raisins.” You know what happened then.
The result of my recipe contortions is a spiced wine, cranberry and cherry tomato chutney that’s so good I licked the pot. It’s easy to make — just throw everything in one pot — and if you don’t like any of the spices or the raisins, just leave them out. If you’d prefer not to use wine, use apple cider or cranberry juice instead.
Empty an entire 12-ounce bag of whole cranberries into a large saucepan along with an 18-ounce package of cherry tomatoes (any kind is fine, even yellow, orange or black varieties) and ¹/3 cup raisins (dark or golden). Add 1 cup red wine, ½ cup tightly packed brown sugar, ¼ cup white sugar, ¼ cup molasses and ¼ cup aged balsamic vinegar, the kind so thick and sweet it’s like syrup, or use red wine vinegar or cider vinegar if that’s what you’ve got. Next, add 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest along with ½ teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger and ¼ teaspoon each salt, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper. Bring it to a roiling boil and keep it there for about 10 minutes, keeping a close watch on it to ensure it doesn’t burn. Then turn the heat down to the lowest setting and let it simmer for a couple of hours, stirring every half-hour or so. I guarantee that your house will smell like a Christmas party is already in progress.
After two hours, turn off the heat and give it a few squishes with a potato masher to crush the berries and tomatoes, leaving a few intact because it’s attractive. Allow the chutney to cool and put some in a little bowl, which you can place near the feta for folks to spoon on top or eat with other cheeses. You can also put all the chutney in a sealed glass container and allow it to chill overnight, ready to be served at the next day’s party. In fact, it will keep in the fridge for about a month.
The chutney can be frozen for up to six months and enjoyed as an accompaniment to pork chops or roast chicken or spread on an extra-thick turkey sandwich.
1 8-ounce block of feta, cut in half horizontally
1 egg, beaten
⅓ cup panko breadcrumbs
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Dip each feta half in egg then in breadcrumbs. Fry in hot skillet for 2 minutes each side. Serve warm.
Spiced Wine, Tomato and Cranberry Chutney
1 18-ounce package of cherry tomatoes
1 12-ounce bag of whole cranberries
⅓ cup raisins (optional)
1 cup red wine or cranberry juice
½ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
¼ cup molasses
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon orange zest
½ teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger
¼ teaspoon each salt, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper
Put all ingredients in pot. Boil for 10 minutes then simmer on low for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally. Cool before serving or chill overnight.